Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, December 24, 2007

Thinking About the Politics of "Design"

Over the last couple of years I've taught a few courses at Berkeley and at the San Francisco Art Institute exploring the interactions of "design" with "politics," especially in the contexts of "Green" design and social software/p2p coding for democracy, and so on.

"Design" discourses turn out to be really double edged for democratically minded people, since they can easily be either profoundly democratizing or profoundly anti-democratizing in their assumptions and effects and the popular forms of design discourse don't seem particularly well-equipped or even always particularly interested in distinguishing these assumptions and effects.

It is amazing how often those who emphasize questions of design and who "value design" really mean by this to denigrate democratic processes or to express a desire to circumvent politics altogether through elite decision making processes and what gets portrayed as politically-"neutral" engineering processes.

Those who would employ, educate, and implement sound design principles to democratic ends (many permaculture advocates, for example, as well as many social software coders) have always to pay close attention to the question of who gets designated as the designers in these design discourses, just where their powers come from, where their money comes from, whether or not they are accountable for the actual impacts of their designs in any way, whether those who are affected by design decisions have a say in the design process and in its outcomes, whether design functions (usually obliquely) to facilitate elite control/exploitation, whether what is marketed as the "introduction" of design into some chaotic state of affairs actually represents the imposition of a new and particular design vocabulary onto indigenous/local lifeways and vocabularies already in use and capable of emancipatory elaboration or reform rather than replacement, and so on. The politics of design is in the details.

This circles me right back around to a point that I really find myself hammering at incessantly among technocentric folks (of whom I too am one, so this is also a self-criticism): "Design" is a word like "technology" -- there is absolutely no conservative or progressive politics inhering in the affirmation or repudiation of "design" as such, at that level of generality.

In fact, the very idea of the blanket repudiation or affirmation of all design, just as with the idea of such a blanket repudiation or affirmation of all technology is literally incoherent: we are ineradicably socialized, acculturated, linguistic, historical beings, there is no human outside of selective attention, public testimony, applied technique. And so there can be no politics organized by the distinction of a "pro" versus "anti" design viewpoint, nor by the distinction of a "pro" versus "anti" technology viewpoint.

Actually, interestingly enough, the rhetoric of proposing otherwise here, of obfuscating technodevelopmental deliberation at the relevant level of concrete decisions, actual stakeholders, and discernible impacts for an abstract affirmation of "design" or "technology" conceived as bland generalities does often have a politics -- and usually it is a de facto conservative politics, even when it exhibits the superficial trappings of radical futurology. This is because taking things off the table, engaging in efforts at de-politicization, is inherently anti-democratizing, and hence inherently conservative.

Technodevelopmental politics look to me to be pretty conventional in fact: either people have a say in the decisions that affect them or "elites" make the decisions because they should for whatever reasons elitists care to supply. Democracy versus tyranny, collaboration versus control, left versus right, exactly as usual.

It is true that the speed, scope, and intensity of technodevelopmental change can sometimes introduce structurally coherent clusters of issues into the political scene that introduce problems into conventional left-right mappings, scramble conventional left-right formations, and so on. Technodevelopmental change isn't the only thing that does this, by the way, but it must be conspicuous in our thinking of the political today.

But I think it is mistaken to claim that these key but momentary complications redefine politics in a truly fundamental way. Given the conspicuously provisional character of analysis and the "strange bedfellow" alliances fears and fantasies around such issues seem to inspire it is easy to imagine there is a kind of unprecedented "third axis" (beyond familiar left-right concerns of democracy/anti-democracy) introduced by the politics of reproductive technologies (abortion, ARTs, contraception, sex education politics, and so on), environmental politics (resource/energy descent, pollution, monoculture, etc.), p2p politics (copyfight, a2k, Net Neutrality, sousveillance, etc.), non-normalizing medical technique (struggles of the differently enabled, the "drug war," transex/intersex politics, consensual mod-med, etc.). But it is my view that each of these fraught and contested edge-cities on the left-right terrain will eventually settle back into familiar democratic/anti-democratic terms -- indeed, in my view, already they are doing so -- as unfamiliar and unknown capacities, problems, costs, risks, and benefits are refamiliarized through the testimony of the relevant stakeholders to their impacts.

I agree that it is important to know when a disruptive development causes familiar mappings and organizing to go a bit haywire for a time, so as to understand better what the dangers and opportunities available in an historical moment consist of. But it is crucial to keep one's touchstone intact even so: The left-right map will eventually restabilize to accommodate the disruptive development. (Even if it is also true that there will always be emerging local disruptions, thank heavens, keeping the political terrain dynamic and futurity open, however intelligible it remains in terms of the basic left-right antagonism of democracy/anti-democracy.) The dangers and opportunities that matter most even in the moments of instability are still defined by the democratic/anti-democratic values onto which the map will re-stabilize soon enough. The politics are prior to the toypile.

It will always be possible to re-orientate the problems and promises inhering in concrete technodevelopments according to democratic versus anti-democratic politics, and to the extent that it is the politics that are being foregrounded presumably in one's analysis, then the values, alliances, and details that are relevant to that analysis will remain the ones that are democratizing or anti-democratizing. The utility of a distinction of pro- vs anti- "design" or pro- vs anti- "technology" as the lens through which to analyze technodevelopmental politics is, to my way of thinking, entirely a matter of observing the impact of these distinctions on and translating them back into terms of whether or not they conduce to greater democratization of deliberation and distribution of technoscientific costs, risks, and benefits to the actual stakeholders to those developments. As a person of the democratic left, I've come to be rather skeptical about both moves myself.


Anonymous said...

A (not a regular poster) person on the wta-talk list asked (paraphrased): What is so bad about elitism? Is democracy a good thing in itself?

Dale Carrico said...

Short answer -- Elitists are always assholes and usually dumbasses: "If this was a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier, as long as I am the dictator."

Longer answer: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan CHAPTER XIII:


NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.

And as to the faculties of the mind, setting aside the arts grounded upon words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon general and infallible rules, called science, which very few have and but in few things, as being not a native faculty born with us, nor attained, as prudence, while we look after some what else, I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength. For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible is but a vain conceit of one's own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree than the vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves, and a few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve. For such is the nature of men that how so ever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves; for they see their own wit at hand, and other men's at a distance. But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of any thing than that every man is contented with his share.

From this equality of ability arise the quality of hope in the attaining of our ends.

Hobbes and I part ways at this point in the argument.

As for your second question: "Is democracy a good thing in itself?"

I define democracy as the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. Do you disagree that this is a good thing? Even if you do believe such a thing (which is surely doubtful given the reliance of most modern conceptions of human dignity on widely shared intuitions about autonomy and consent), it is hard to believe that you will be willing to say this in a public (inasmuch as it means you lose the argument before you begin, since few people are foolish enough to affirm a belief in elitist authoritarianism even if they share it).

The options are to agree with the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them (followed by fraught struggles and institutional experiments to implement this idea in history), or to make some conspicuously qualified claim for certain constrained circumstances (parents for offspring, advocates for clients, experts for general stakeholders, etc.) that some people should make decisions affecting others for them (because some minority or other is the "natural constituency" of decision due to birth, money, position, education, merit, professional qualification, and so on and so on).

Except in highly qualified and constrained cases (I mentioned a few obvious ones above) those who claim to represent such natural constituencies will tend to be exposed eventually and rather hilariously as self-serving and dangerously delusive. Meanwhile the arguments that tend to provide the rationale for elitism (the masses are too ignorant, subjective, intemperate, greedy, passionate in some generalized way that the valorized elites in question are not, blah blah blah) tend to disqualify the exemplars of the so-called elites from the position of legitimate decision maker exactly as readily as they would everybody people in any case.

Nato Welch said...

This is a very timely post for me (notwithstanding that it's taken me a couple of weeks to read & respond to). I'm in the middle of writing a piece on Digital Rights Management techniques as they might be applied to the design of molecular manufacturing devices - "nanofactories", and their more proximate, meso-scale ancestors (eg ). I think DRM - defined broadly as restricting the native capabilities of a device you sell to someone else - is a prime candidate for an anti-democratizing application of design.

Thanks for adding some extra things to think about as I write.

Dale Carrico said...

About DRM: Strongly agree that it tends to be anti-democratizing, on classic dem-left a2k grounds. I'd love to see your paper when it's done or closer to done. Let me know, d